MOSCOW, Russia– Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal deep in extra time as Croatia beat England, 2-1, in an utterly gripping World Cup semi-final in Moscow on Wednesday to set up a final date with France.
The Juventus forward netted in the 109th minute to complete a remarkable comeback from a shattered Croatian team and take the small nation of more than four million people into the World Cup final for the first time in their short history.
Kieran Trippier’s magnificent early free-kick had seemingly set England on course to reach their first final since they lifted the trophy on home soil back in 1966.
But it wasn’t to be, as Croatia came roaring back in the second half and equalized through Ivan Perisic before somehow finding the energy to win despite being taken to extra time for the third time in 11 days.
The biggest winners of the night could well be France, who have had an extra day’s rest for Sunday’s final after edging out Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday.
That will not matter too much right now for Croatia, who are the smallest nation to make it to the final since Uruguay back in 1950.
“It was a very difficult game, we all know what was at stake, how important a semi-final is for a small country such as Croatia,” said man-of-the-match Perisic.
“We started slowly but we showed our character, just as in the previous two knockout rounds when we were one goal down in both matches. We were not that resilient in the past.”
England had been the ones hoping to make history, in what was their first appearance in the semi-finals in 28 years.
Then they were beaten on penalties by West Germany. Having ended their famous penalty curse by beating Colombia in a shootout in the last 16, they might have fancied repeating that here.
But Croatia, having won on penalties against Denmark and Russia in the last two rounds, saw the game out, dousing the World Cup dream of Gareth Southgate’s side that had gone from the improbable to the possible over the past month in Russia.